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Statement by Senator Strom Thurmond


Strom Thurmond

It is an honor and privilege to have been invited by the Republican Leader, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, to participate in the Leader’s Lecture Series.  The United States Senate is a unique institution in many ways, not the least of which is the important role it has played in the history of our great nation.  The establishment of this program by Senator Lott is an undertaking that helps to chronicle and preserve the rich heritage of the United States Senate as well as to create an invaluable resource to aid researchers, academicians, and interested citizens in learning more about the history of this body and how it operates.  It is my hope that this series will serve as a foundation for future efforts to record and showcase the heritage and history of the United States Senate.

The Important Role of the Senate in our Government

As one of three coequal branches of government, the Congress has played an important role in the growth of this nation.  More specifically, with its “advice and consent” responsibilities, the United States Senate has been particularly instrumental in shaping policy and making history.  The Civil Rights Act of 1866; the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866; the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946; the War Powers Resolution of 1973; and the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 are examples of the significant legislative action taken by this body.  More recently, the impeachment trial of President Clinton is another example of the important and historic role that only the Senate performs.  Furthermore, the impact of the work of the Senate does not stop at the Atlantic and the Pacific, or at our borders with Mexico and Canada; without question, the action we take in the Senate Chamber has reverberations around the globe, a fact that we sometimes forget.

More than an institution which makes law, passes budgets, and confirms executive branch nominees, the United States Senate represents a tremendous talent pool for senior public servants.  Some of the most influential and revered American statesmen have served their entire federal careers in the Senate, and beyond that, numerous Presidents, Vice Presidents, cabinet officers, ambassadors, and other senior officials have emerged from this hallowed body.  Richard Nixon, who as Vice President swore me into office and later went on to become the President, served in the United States Senate.  Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader when I first arrived here, and as we all know, he went on to serve as Vice President and then President, succeeding John F. Kennedy with whom I served on the Labor Committee.  While he never lived to finish his bid for the presidency, I also served with Bobby Kennedy, who had an office very close to mine when he was in the Senate, and I can remember him walking the halls with his dog and cheerfully greeting my receptionists as he passed by the open door to my office.  Many Senators have gone on to hold cabinet level posts, including Frank Kellogg (R-MN) who became Secretary of State in 1925; J. Howard McGrath (D-RI), who became Attorney General in 1949; William Saxbe (R-OH) who also became Attorney General, but almost thirty-years later in 1974; and Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX) who served as Secretary of the Treasury in 1993.  Senators have left Washington to represent our nation in postings as ambassadors, including Kenneth Keating (R-NY) who served in India, and Mike Mansfield (R-MT) who served as ambassador to Japan.  From the United States Capitol to state capitals, one will find former Senators, including Lawton Chiles (D-FL), Lowell Weicker (R-CT), and Dirk Kempthorne (R-ID) who all went on to serve as the chief executives of their respective states after having represented them as Senators.

Changes Since the 1950s

I have been blessed to have witnessed almost 50 years of Senate history, an era that has been filled with many changes in this body, this nation, and throughout the world.  I first arrived in Washington as a United States Senator on December 24, 1954.  On what was a cold Christmas Eve, my late wife Jean and I met with then Vice President Richard Nixon and I took the oath of office.  The Senate of today is far different from the one I entered five decades ago.

To begin with, while the Senate Chamber has not grown physically, it has grown by population.  When I first arrived here, neither Alaska nor Hawaii were states and there were four fewer Senators in this body.  Our friends from the “Aloha” and “Last Frontier” states did not join us until 1959.  In addition to there being fewer Senators, there were fewer buildings on the Senate side of the Capitol complex.  In 1954, only what has become the Russell Building existed to house Senators, staff, committees, and other support personnel and functions.  In subsequent years, both the Dirksen and Hart Buildings were built along Constitution Avenue to the east of the Russell Building,  permanently altering the landscape of Capitol Hill.

Just as the neighborhood of the Senate has changed, the life of a United States Senator was much different in the “old days.”  To begin with, we only worked approximately one-half the year.  I actually was able to sublet my apartment and return to South Carolina for the summer months. This more regimented and predictable work schedule made life much easier in many respects, not the least of which was that it allowed us to better keep up with constituents.  I also required fewer people to assist me in carrying out my duties.  When I first came here, I had four attorneys and three clerk/typists on my staff.  Today, I have a Washington staff many times that size and I need each and every one of them to help me keep up with not only the many different matters before the Senate, but the countless other policy initiatives undertaken by the executive branch.  A strong, competent, and capable staff is absolutely necessary to a Senator to aid him or her in keeping up with their duties, in maintaining contact with their constituents, and assuring the smooth functioning of the legislative process.  Throughout my career, I have made it a point to hire the best people I could to work as staffers in my personal office and on my committees.  One of the keys to being a successful Senator is to surround oneself with a staff that is talented, bright, and hard working.

Both of these anecdotes are useful examples of how significantly and substantially government has grown in a relatively short period of time.  When I first arrived here, the number of issues in which the Senate was involved was relatively few and were primarily limited.  By contrast, in this day and age it seems that there is hardly an arena in which we have not become entangled.  Even more frustrating is the fact that if the government has not already inserted itself into a matter, they soon do so either of their own volition or at the urging of others.  In many ways, it seems as though citizens in this day and age want the government to take on the role of surrogate parent.  We have seen the government evolve from an institution that was responsible for providing for the defense of the nation and other vital services, to one which is expected to prohibit children from smoking, drinking, using illegal drugs, to making certain that no one’s feelings get hurt, and to regulate the content of television, movies, and other entertainment projects.  The end result is that government is now involved in almost every aspect of the lives of our citizens.  I am not certain that this is the best trend.

Encroachment on the Legislative Branch

Beyond just the growth of government, as someone who has spent the bulk of his public service career in the United States Senate, it is deeply troubling to see the blurring of distinctions between the three branches of government.  Back in the 1960s a disturbing trend began to manifest itself, that of the activist court.  While the  intentions of those who became judicial activists might have been well meaning, they were more than misguided. They were counter to the Constitution.  The Founders deliberately made the legislative, executive, and judicial branches coequal, separate and distinct from one another in order to create a system of checks and balances and assure that no one branch would be more powerful than another.  Since its inception, judicial activism has grown from a judge “doing the right thing” and finding a way to justify it legally, to the court system actually being used to enact laws.  Simply because the Congress does not pass a law does not mean it has broken down as an institution, and it definitely does not mean that frustrated activists can make an “end run” around the Constitution and the legislative process by seeking to legislate through litigation.  

The encroachment on the legislative branch has altered in some respects how I conduct my duties as a Senator.  I have always believed that it is the responsibility of the Senate to approve, whenever possible, the nominations of a President, regardless of which party controls the White House.  If the President thinks that a particular individual is best suited to serve in his administration and is the best person to serve the people, then that is the man or the woman who the Senate should confirm, and rapidly so.  This philosophy has changed, though, when it comes to judicial nominees.  As I stated earlier, there was a time in my Senate career when candidates to be federal judges were individuals who were only concerned with interpreting the law, not making it, but since the 1960s that is no longer the case.  In order to protect against judicial activism, as well as to guard the authority of the legislative branch, judicial nominees must now be carefully vetted.  Nothing in a nominee’s past can be ignored, for an appointment to the Federal bench lasts a lifetime and if we are truly serious about maintaining a separation of powers, we cannot allow men and women who are activists to serve as judges and erode the authority of the Congress.  When I was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I made the confirmation of judges my first priority, but the committee did not confirm all nominees, nor did I move those who were deemed to be  potential judicial activists, which included candidates from my own party.

Partisanship and Intraparty Conflict

Sadly, rigid stewardship of the bench has led to charges of “partisanship,” but I am not sure how accurate such charges are as there have always been distinct and passionate differences between political parties and even among elements of the same political party.  I ran against Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election as a third party candidate, carrying four states and 39 electoral votes.  We actually came very close to throwing the whole election into the House of Representatives where the outcome would have been anyone’s guess and it is entirely possible that I could have won election as there was a strong likelihood that the southern states would have voted in bloc to support my candidacy.  As a matter of fact, we were receiving calls on election night from President Truman’s representatives asking us not to do anything until we had the opportunity to talk.  In the end, President Truman won his narrow reelection and went on to lead the nation until January 1953.  Perhaps understandably, he maintained very bitter feelings about my challenge and expressed them freely.  At the time of the 1948 election, I was Governor of South Carolina and though I had lost a hard-run presidential race, I joined the inauguration festivities here in Washington which included a parade.  As my wife and I walked by the reviewing stand where the just reelected President sat, I took off my hat and my wife waved in signs of respect to President Truman.  Mr. Truman’s Vice President Alben Barkley went to return the gestures, but the President grabbed his arm and an open radio microphone caught the Chief Executive saying “Don’t you wave to the S.O.B.”

Another member of my own party with whom I frequently felt at odds was Lyndon Baines Johnson.  During my early years in the Senate, Lyndon Johnson was majority leader, and I do not think I am covering any new ground by saying that he was an imposing and domineering man who always wanted his way.  The Senator from Texas was not afraid to wield power to either punish or reward people.  When I arrived here, I was very anxious to join the Armed Services Committee and made my desires known to the majority leader.  At one point, I cannot recall the circumstances exactly, Senator Johnson came to me and advised me that if I voted with him on a particular issue, he would get me onto the Armed Services Committee.  I do recall that the vote with Johnson was a vote against my conscience and I told the leader that I could not support him.  His response was that there was no way I was going to get on the Armed Services Committee as long as he was majority leader, certainly disappointing news, but I felt staying true to my convictions was more important than gaining a seat on Armed Services.

Not too long after that, Senator Johnson came to me and told me that he was going to move me to the Armed Services Committee after all.  I had been serving on the Labor Committee, and apparently I had been such a thorn in the side of the unions that they went to the leader and demanded that I be moved off the committee.  I was certainly happy at this news, though I do not recall Senator Johnson being particularly overwhelmed with delight at informing me of my new committee assignment.

I share these stories to demonstrate that acrimony in the Senate is not something which is a new development.  That said, I would contend that the nature of life today does not make it any easier to break down party barriers and reach across the aisle.

Technology has made it more difficult to break down barriers between parties.  To most Americans, the jet engine is as commonplace as the shoes they wear, but few probably realize that this transportation innovation is a relatively new invention.  The development of the jet revolutionized how we think about time, distance, and travel.  Ponder this for a moment: when I was a child, taking a trip to China, a country which is quite literally at the opposite end of the world from South Carolina, would have required an expensive journey of many months.  Just three years ago, I led a delegation to the People’s Republic of China that took less than fifteen hours of travel time.  If the jet airplane has shrunk the world to that extent, consider how easy it has made traveling in the United States.   In some respects, people spend more time getting to and from the airport than they do in flight, and as a result of how quick and easy it is to travel domestically, Senators are now able to literally go “home” every weekend.  There is certainly less incentive for Members of Congress to stay in Washington to socialize with their colleagues when they can be home spending time with their family, friends, and of considerable professional importance, with their constituents and contributors.  While frequent trips home might be of service to the member and his or her continued tenure in the Senate, it has helped to undermine collegiality in Congress.  When returning home was a time-consuming journey, and Senators stayed in Washington on the weekends, we socialized with each other, and as a result, we built friendships and relationships that crossed aisles and helped create an atmosphere where it was possible to set aside ideological differences to pass legislation.

In addition to the jet airliner, advances in communication technology have served to shrink the world and make it ever more difficult to get away from the office.  The telephone, pager, satellite, cable television, fax, Internet, and cell phone have had the effect that we are never “out of contact” and that business never stops.  We also now have a 24-hour “news cycle.” There is always a “hole” to fill in papers, on the air, and even in cyberspace.  Regrettably, this news hole often does not always get filled with quality material.  Furthermore, I am worried that we are now reacting even more to “news” and the images that are almost relentlessly and repeatedly shown around the clock as opposed to making sound public policy.  Time and time again, we have seen the folly of stumbling headlong into a crisis brought to our attention via the media, which in the end turns out to have been a foolhardy pursuit of public policy.  The interests and concerns of the United States are not always in sync with whatever the latest tragedy featured on the news is.  As policymakers, we must remember that.  Finally, the merging of news and entertainment as represented by many confrontational “public affairs” shows, along with the constant repetition of stories, does little to give lawmakers a time out, turn down the rhetoric, and to find a solution to a problem.  In short, the glaring and seemingly unblinking eye of the media adds to an atmosphere which fosters partisan sniping and obstructionism.  No one comes to the United States Senate with the idea that being responsible for gumming up the workings of this body is a legacy which they want to leave.

The Armed Services Committee

One aspect of the Senate that has remained largely free of partisanship is the Armed Services Committee.  Thankfully, the men and women of this committee seem to be able to work together for the good of the nation and the common defense.  An interesting note about this lack of acrimony is that the Senate Armed Services Committee is one of the few remaining committees that still engages in the authorization process.  This is an important distinction for several reasons, not the least of which is it allows the committee to have an impact on the policies, directives, and initiatives of the Department of Defense and national security.  Additionally, it reminds people of the need to have both authorizing and appropriating committees, the trend of having the appropriators also authorize is not one that I necessarily think strengthens the legislative process or best serves the interests of the executive and judicial branches as well as the general public.

I am also pleased to note that the Armed Services Committee has a fair representation of individuals who have actually served the United States as members of the military.  Sadly, this is another marked difference in the Senate from when I first arrived here in 1954.  As a matter of fact, the number of currently serving Members of Congress who have military experience is the lowest it has been since World War II.  This is not a comforting statistic.

There is no question what I witnessed as a soldier in the United States Army during World War II had a strong impact on my global view and how I approach public policy.  I know what it is like to have to get up at the crack of dawn, get dressed and fall into formation all in ten minutes or less.  I know what it is like to be shot at and have someone try to kill you.  I know what it is like to live in mud.  These experiences give one valuable insight into how a soldier lives, and it gives a member a frame of reference as to how policy and legislation might not only impact national security on a macro level, but how it will impact the lives of a young E-3 or second lieutenant.  

The undisputed lesson that I learned from witnessing the events that led up to the beginning of World War II, as well as what I did and saw during the war, is that to ensure the security of the people and borders of the United States, it is vital that we maintain a strong and viable military establishment.  There is no way that one could witness the appeasement of Hitler or the destruction of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and not immediately understand the need for maintaining a strong defense.  Had the United States and other freedom-loving nations had the ability to draw the line against Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, and Stalin – who was allied with Hitler until the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union – World War II would never have reached the global proportions it did.  Soldiers in the Philippines would have never been forced on the Bataan Death March, nor would young boys have died in Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium, and Germany as the Allies fought their way toward Berlin.  Furthermore, had we maintained a strong defense after World War II, we would have been in a much better position to have dealt with the attack which communist North Koreans launched in 1950.  How many people know what the “Pusan Perimeter” was, or why it is another excellent example of the costs of not maintaining a robust military.  

Sadly, fewer and fewer people who serve in the Congress have ever served in the military, and as a result, there is a lack of understanding and in many respects, appreciation, for the sacrifices and demands of being a member of our armed services.  If there were a way to get voters to consider military service as an indispensable aspect of an elected official’s background and qualifications, the benefits would be to make this institution stronger, strengthen the security of the United States, and help maintain stability throughout the world.

Constituent Service

Just as I would like to see more members of Congress have military experience, I would like to see more Senators and Representatives place an increased emphasis on constituent services.  Certainly, it is our job as legislators to make the law, but as public servants, it is our duty and responsibility to come to the aid of the citizens of our states.  To us and to those who work for us, knowing what agencies are responsible for what functions might be second nature.  That is not the case for our constituents.  The truth of the matter is that government, even when it is limited, can be a big, imposing, and confusing institution to the average citizen.  We owe it to the people who send us here to help them navigate the sometime baffling maze of the federal bureaucracy.  The contributions we can make to our constituents through lending a helping hand are substantial and meaningful.  To make a difference in society, we do not necessarily have to pass a landmark bill, steer money back to our states, or be seen frequently on television or in the papers.  By simply helping someone resolve a problem with their Social Security check or secure a passport,  we can have a tangible and positive impact in the lives of others.  I am sure that if a historian were to study citizens’ attitudes toward the federal government, he or she would find some level of dissatisfaction among the populace toward Washington.  Sadly though, it seems that today government is widely viewed as a root cause of “the problem,” that federal officials at every level exist not to be of help but rather to act as an obstacle.  That is not a healthy attitude for citizens to possess and we have the power to be instrumental in changing those views.  Place an equal emphasis on constituent services as on policy and legislation, task staffers to act as case workers, and be an advocate for your state and citizens with executive branch agencies.  Constituent service is not an antiquated notion, it is part and parcel of why we are here.

Despite whatever political differences we might have, regardless of what issues interest and motivate us, and no matter which side of the aisle upon which we sit, all of us ran for office and fight to stay here because we want to serve and make a difference.  There is no more noble calling than public service, and no more rewarding place to serve than the United States Senate.  This is truly one of the most unique and special institutions in the world and the opportunity to serve in this body is a rare privilege and one which I think all of us value equally.  In my public service career I have served in many different capacities and at every level of government, but none has been more meaningful or gratifying than the time I have spent as the Senator from South Carolina.  There is no better place to work, no better way to make a living, and no better way to serve than right here in this body.  Be proud of your tenure in the Senate, do all you can to serve the public, and do all you can to keep the Senate the proud, historic, and distinguished body of government it has been for the past two hundred years.

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